Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning: Past Lessons and Future Opportunities

Headshot of Dave Edyburn

Guest Expert: Dr. Dave Edyburn

About Dr. Edyburn

The guest expert of this CIDDL Research and Practice Brief is Dr. Dave Edyburn. Dr. Edyburn is is Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus in the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability (R2D2) Center at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Associate Graduate Faculty in the Department of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas. His research focuses on the application of technology to enhance teaching, learning, and performance, with a focus on special education technology. Dr. Edyburn has also written extensively regarding AT and UDL over the past 20 years.

The problem highlighted in this brief

Research has consistently demonstrated that students with disabilities do not have adequate access to assistive technologies (AT) and features they need to support their learning. Teachers often express uncertainty in how to incorporate these tools into the classroom, suggesting that preservice teacher education does not do enough to prepare teachers in this regard. At the same time, teachers express misunderstanding about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and sometimes believe AT and UDL are words used interchangeably.

Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?

AT was initially defined as tools specifically intended for students with disabilities; however, as AT features become embedded in more products, they become an increasingly ubiquitous tool for all students. UDL, on the other hand, is an educational framework intended to help teachers design for the natural variability in student needs and abilities found in any classroom (Meyer et al., 2014). To better prepare pre-service teachers for implementing AT and UDL, teacher educators will benefit from a better understanding of how AT and UDL are positioned in education policies and research. In this brief, CIDDL invites Dr. Dave Edyburn to share his insights into the past and future of AT and UDL as well as connections between the two concepts. Dr. Edyburn also offers suggestions on supporting teachers in building UDL buffets with a variety of AT options for all students.

About This Brief

This brief first provides policy and research context in which AT and UDL were positioned as tools that support learning for students with and without disabilities. As a researcher in both areas, Dr. Dave Edyburn discusses the history of AT and UDL, especially the challenges facing the field of special education around their implementation. Despite these challenges, Dr. Edyburn provides insight into strategies to improve educational outcomes for students, especially by approaching teaching as a research and development activity. Edyburn suggests some of the ways we might better prepare preservice teachers to take advantage of technologies that may not have existed when they themselves were students.

Policy and Research Context

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) defines AT as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” IDEA requires that AT be considered for every student with disabilities when developing their individualized education plan (IEP). Additionally, IDEA highlights the need of using technology, including technology with universal design principles and AT devices, to maximize accessibility to general education curricula for students with disabilities.

According to a review of literature from 2005-2019 concerning AT, it remains difficult to describe AT application as an evidenced-based intervention due to the limited number of research studies demonstrating outcomes (Edyburn, 2020a). What is clear, however, is that AT remains an underutilized intervention for providing students with disabilities access to educational curricula. For example, Edyburn (2021a) pointed out that, while every technology platform has universal accessibility features that support reading and writing, American schools have not recognized the need to provide students with instruction in the use of these features. Students with disabilities continue to face three challenges, which include (1) barriers in learning management systems; (2) inaccessible documents, media, and webpages; and (3) barriers within teaching activities due to a lack of appropriate supportive devices and services (Edyburn, 2021b).

In an interesting parallel, reviews of research into UDL have presented similar problems in establishing a consistent research base (Edyburn, 2020b). The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 defines UDL as a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that — (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient. This definition has been adopted and applied toward K-12 education in the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. However, there is still confusion around the definition of UDL, which has made it difficult to accurately measure its presence in classrooms (Edyburn, 2020b).

More than 10 years have passed since Edyburn (2010) asked the research community if they would recognize UDL if they saw it. In his 2010 article, Edyburn highlighted a lack of sufficient direct evidence to establish UDL as a scientifically validated intervention. UDL ran the risk of becoming just another educational fad: a short-lived, fashionable movement that generates intense enthusiasm but is quickly abandoned (Edyburn, 2020b). Edyburn called for greater knowledge around what it means to implement UDL, how to measure the outcomes of UDL, and who is responsible for creating UDL products. The following are key insights gleaned from the interview with Edyburn and previous research. The interview focused on four major questions around AT and UDL as well as implications for teacher education.

Conversation with Dr. Edyburn

Q1: Could you talk about some of the changes you’ve see in the area of Assistive Technology (AT)?

If an intervention, tool, or device is used only by primary beneficiaries (the students for whom it was initially intended), then it can be considered an AT. However, if that same intervention or device provides benefit to other students in the classroom, it may be considered to have universal design applications (Edyburn, 2021b). Accessibility is no longer focused exclusively on people with disabilities. Today, concepts around universal usability challenge product designers to improve the user experience for everyone.

Assistive technology got started by saying it’s a tool only for people with disabilities… It’s kind of a 1980’s perspective of technology. The Federal definition of assistive technology has not really evolved…

Q2: How do we improve teacher education to better prepare future teachers to enter the classroom ready to use AT?

In his 2020 rapid literature review, Dr. Edyburn provided a number of considerations for the types of training pre-service and in-service teachers should receive in order to ensure successful AT implementation. To maximize the effectiveness of technology, teachers need knowledge around: 1) determining who may need AT; 2) how to evaluate AT interventions, and 3) the types of outcomes to anticipate from AT.

If teacher educators don’t model the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning, or provide meaningful experiences to explore innovative technologies, as well as how to integrate technology, the assumption is that future teachers will not be well prepared.

Q3: Could you talk to us briefly about the current state of UDL?

Within the last ten years, UDL has captured the attention of stakeholders at all levels. The idea that good design can benefit everyone is a simple message that makes UDL an attractive option. Yet, researchers over the past decade have struggled to define UDL on paper and identify it in practice (Edyburn, 2020b). Edyburn and Edyburn (2021) highlighted the need for more guidance on how to help preservice teachers bridge the gap between “knowing about” and “implementing” UDL.

We still haven’t figured out how to define it.

Q4: What should teacher preparation do to support UDL implementation and prevent it from fading away?

Edyburn and Edyburn (2021) suggest two tactics for building out this UDL buffet. First, in order to discover resources to include on the menu, teachers can search for websites that compare products they are interested in using or search out curated guides compiled by other educators. Second, teachers require a management system for presenting the resources they plan to offer students. This can be in the form of a web list page on the class’s learning management system, or by creating a tic-tac-toe board of options students must choose from.

I really think the issue of choice in UDL is about helping teachers make menus… My job as to set the buffet. So, there’s three chairs, there’s three porridges, there’s three beds… As the students come in, I want to challenge them to behave like goldilocks, so that they try out each and determine what is just right.


In his interview, Dr. Edyburn shared resources that may be of interest:

  • Assistive Technology: An Overview: 

    This learning module from the IRIS Center provides an overview of assistive technology, especially for students with high-incidence disabilities and covers the process from initial consideration of AT through its implementation and evaluation.

  • Photomath:

    This app provides support with everything from elementary math problems through trigonometry and stats. Photomath provides step-by-step instructions to help users to master their math problems.

  • Text Compactor:

    This free online tool allows you to quickly summarize blocks of text by selecting what percentage you would like to keep.


References are listed in the PDF copy of the brief.

Suggested Citation

Hoekstra, N. J., & The CIDDL Team. (2021). Where we’ve been and where we need to go: Assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning.